A mile of boxcars

A mile of boxcars

Cheyenne is home to railroads. The junction of an east-west route of the Union Pacific, and a north-south route, the BNSF, means that trains come through Cheyenne on a regular, and frequent, basis.

The power generated by these engines is mind boggling.  To see them pull a mile-long string of boxcars is quite impressive.

Many years ago I worked for the Burlington Northern Railroad.  I had just moved to Livingston, Montana to seek my fortune, and be near my future wife, when I was offered a position as a communications lineman apprentice.  Never mind that I had no electronics experience, or ever climbed a telephone pole, I was working for the railroad!

I was to report to a crew in Missoula, Montana for the beginning of this adventure.  Missoula is 225 miles from Livingston, and I had to borrow a car to get there.  Little did I know what was in store for me.

My first day on the job, it was about 20 degrees with snow all around when we climbed into the line truck.  Arriving at the job site, the foreman tossed out a belt and climbers  to the ground at my feet, pointing at me and 3 others on the crew and saying “hooks.”  Those are the lineman’s term for the climbers that strap under your foot, over the top of your foot and around your shin just below the knee.  They have a spur on them that you use to dig into the pole, propelling yourself upwards.

I had never seen these before, much less used them, but here I was, standing in the snow with a bunch of strangers, and my continued employment was dependent upon putting them on and climbing a pole.   I was terrified.

I got a little help from the others on the crew in putting them on and climbing that pole, but then I was on my own.  In spite of the cold weather, I was sweating bullets, praying that I would not come suddenly down.  There is a term for that as well – burning the pole, which is the unintentional descent from the top.

I spent about 6 months with the BN, getting laid off once and called back a corresponding time.  Then I was given an opportunity to either get laid off again, or transfer to Minnesota.  That’s the life of a railroader, going where the job is or going home.  I chose to go home and ended my foray with the railroad.

I learned that there are jobs that are very difficult, and that people do them because they have to.  A job is not something to be taken for granted, and certainly  nothing that is a birthright.  Jobs have to be earned, and then continued to be earned each and every day.  Hard work is a reward unto its own, and should be savored rather than avoided.

I have taken jobs that were great sacrifices to either my personal life or my self-esteem.  The job with the BN did not require a degree, and I had one. However, I never considered it beneath me.  I always did what I had to do to support my family, even if it meant getting up way before dawn, and getting home way after dark, or, in the case of the railroad, staying a week at a time in a filthy outfit car parked in the railyard of Missoula, Montana.  That’s a story for another day.

These diesel engines are what moves the freight our country depends on. They go from coast to coast, border to border, and they run on the labor of thousands of men and women who keep them moving. I feel a bond with them every time I see a train, and I still remember that 2 longs, a short and a long mean that the train is coming to a grade crossing.

I hear that lots in Cheyenne.


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